Sight Words and Sentences: Teaching Reading, part 3

Homeschool girl with letter blocks

Up to this point in our series on teaching your child to read, we have been talking about informal play activities. Once your child can read several dozen words from those activities, it’s time to start actual reading lessons. Charlotte advocated starting when the child was six years old but acknowledged that each child is unique. The key is not to hurry. Don’t push. Relax. Take your time. Wait until your child is ready. (Does this sound familiar?)

These reading lessons will also work well if you have been using a different reading curriculum and have gotten your child to a point where he can read short words and sentences but is having trouble making the transition to reading in a book.

Charlotte Mason-style reading lessons use two approaches: sight words and word-building.

Definitely, what is it we propose in teaching a child to read? (a) that he shall know at sight, say, some thousand words; (b) That he shall be able to build up new words with the elements of these. Let him learn ten new words a day, and in twenty weeks he will be to some extent able to read, without any question as to the number of letters in a word. For the second, and less important, part of our task, the child must know the sounds of the letters, and acquire power to throw given sounds into new combinations (Home Education, pp. 215, 216).

So Charlotte alternated her reading lessons to focus on sight words one day, word-building the next. Today we’ll explain how to do the sight-words lessons.

Preparation for the Reading Lesson

Choose a good classic children’s poem or other rich reading selection with interesting words. Charlotte gave several good examples. One was the poem “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” so we’ll use that for our description here.
You’ll need three basic manipulatives for the lessons:

  • Loose letters that your child can use to put together the words he learns,
  • A page with your reading selection printed on it,
  • The words of your reading selection cut apart, one word per strip of paper.

You’ll also want a chalkboard or white board.

Sight Words

Focus on one or two lines of your poem at a time in order to keep the reading lessons short: 10–15 minutes maximum. Grab the word strips for the first line (“twinkle, twinkle, little star”) and follow these steps.

  1. Show your child a word strip and tell him what that word is. Remember to introduce the words in a different order than they appear in the poem’s line, for example, “star” then “twinkle” then “little.”
  2. Have your child look closely at the word. Discuss what it means, if needed. Then hide it among the other word strips and have your child find it.
  3. Hide the word again and ask your child if he can make the word with his loose letters. If he cannot make the word from memory, write it on the board and let him look at it again while he puts the letters in place. You don’t want him to guess at the spelling; you want him to see the word spelled correctly as much as possible.
  4. Have your child find the word on a printed page—the one containing the poem or prose that you are using for your lessons.
  5. Write the word on the board, creating a list of words he has learned. Each time you add a word, have him read the whole list. Be sure to vary the order of the words as you progress; point to them in different orders for him to read aloud. You don’t want him to just memorize the list in order; you want him to recognize each word as he would the familiar face of a friend.
  6. Repeat with the other words in the line of the poem or until the lesson reaches 10 or 15 minutes long.
  7. Once he has learned all the words, have him read aloud the printed line of the poem on the sheet of paper. You can also call out the words in turn and have him arrange his word strips in order, then read off the line.


After your child has learned several sight words, encourage him to create some new sentences using those words. This is another activity that works well with the word strips. Let your child arrange them in various orders as he composes his original sentences and reads them aloud. You can include words from previous lessons, too, as you progress.

At this point your child will have learned the words to the line of the poem that you taught. He may be expecting to learn the second line tomorrow, but you want to mix things up to keep it interesting.

The more variety you can throw into his reading lessons, the more will the child enjoy them (Home Education, p. 204).

One way to add variety and interest, and the next step, is to include word-building lessons as you go along. Next week we’ll explain exactly how to do word building.

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  1. i am curious: i have a child that has learned the sight words and many phonics words, however, when she goes to read them in a book she has a very hard time. she goes very very slowly, even with the super easy words. reading has come hard for her, and i’ve found that (as unfortunate as it sounds) after i sternly try & harp for her to read a bit faster she can read quite fast. it almost feels like she is rebelling against reading in general because it hasn’t come naturally for her. do you have any suggestions?
    needing advice, j

    • Hi, Jo. It’s hard without knowing specifics, but three possible ideas come to mind.

      One, she might be young enough that reading just hasn’t “clicked” for her yet. It’s amazing the speed of the progress once the child is ready. If this is the case, you might take a few weeks off.

      Two, the reading lessons might be too long. Charlotte advised short lessons (5-10 minutes for beginners) to help them keep their attention focused and not over-fatigue one part of the brain. If this is the case, you might explain that you are going to set the timer and she will read only until it beeps. It may be that she has inadvertently developed a habit of slogging along. Short lessons might help to replace that old habit with the new one of attention and best effort. In other words, start emphasizing quality of her reading more than how much she covers. Intentionally give her short portions that you know she can be successful at reading at a normal speed. Then stop the lesson for that day. Continue this pattern until she has developed the habit of best effort and full attention. Then little by little increase the amount she is reading and continue to emphasize quality over quantity.

      Three, the reading material might not be interesting to her. If she has no incentive to see what happens next, it’s easier to slog along. If this is the case, you may want to select a different book that she will enjoy and look forward to reading.

  2. thank you Sonya, i appreciate your time & comments.
    we were using a Waldorf curric early on and i have (within the past year)
    tried to transition over to Charlotte Mason. thus she is older at age 8.
    she has explained that she doesn’t like most of the books (due to their
    aim at a younger grouping) and thus i have ordered several books that
    are to her liking. it has been a rough past couple years (lay off, moving,
    living without our belongings) so i’m guessing that that affects her interest
    as well. i will try to shorten our lessons a bit to see if that helps as well.
    thank you again & best wishes, j

  3. Sonya, I want to thank you for these valuable lessons on teaching a child to read. Our 4th child is a very bright child and has been doing well with the book I’ve used with my other children, but they are all terrible spellers. I am hoping this method will help with her spelling. I appreciate the timely advice!

  4. I have begun using this method of instruction since you mentioned it a few weeks ago. My girls are really enjoying it but my oldest can already read almost every word I pick from the poems I’m using. I could pick more challenging words but then there’s not much to build on when you move to the word-building activity. Is there a point at which you stop the lessons and just let them read?

    • Absolutely. Remember that this method is a means to an end. If your oldest can already read most of the words, you may want to just schedule a short time each day for her to read aloud to you. My girls loved the Pathway Readers for this step. If she gets stuck on a word as she is reading, you can help her figure it out. It sounds like she may be at the point of just needing some practice and repeated opportunities of seeing the words in order to build speed in recognizing them.

      • Thank you for your reply! I attended a conference you lead in Jacksonville, FL last year and am really enjoying applying all I’ve learned. Charlotte Mason’s methods and your teaching are such blessings to our family. Thanks again.

  5. I also have an older child (8) that is having a hard time reading and we too have been using a waldorf approach. I would love to hear Sonya’s ideas for an older child (8yo +) We have done a poem and he seemed to know most of the words already. It seems like he might be ready for the Pathway Readers. I plan on using the timer as suggested but wondered if there are any other suggestions. Thanks

    p.s. I have a 4yo that is beginning to read with ease……

    • I’ve been adding the Pathway Readers into the mix for my child too. It’s nice to have lots of options to keep reading lessons fresh. You might also do some word-building from the poem’s words that he knows. A mixture of word-building and practice reading could be a good support for him as he progresses. And if he can use the letter tiles to create the words during the word-building lessons, that additional hands-on activity might help solidify the words in his mind.

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